Ephemera - There's Something In It For You
John G. Sayers
Ephemera, It’s pronounced like ‘philately’ or ‘phonics’, but it’s spelled Ephemera, and it covers all paper collectibles that are fragile and transitory. That includes documents, manuscripts, postcards, Valentines, greeting cards, menus, timetables, posters, books, brochures, and all things paper. Some definitions also extend to other non-paper items of a transitory nature.
I sometimes wonder whether my spouse thinks of my collection as f…emera, sort of the collector’s f-word! But most of the time she’s pleased to have it around. Ephemera takes up very little space, is easy to store, relatively easy to find (depending on what you collect), and incredibly interesting. There are still lots of great ephemera ‘finds’ out there, and you won’t have to take out a second mortgage on your home to build a great collection.
Ephemera. Think of a topic that interests you…hmmm…you used to be a smoker, so you recall your cigarette days. How about collecting old cigarette advertising…or matchbooks…or cigarette packages? You’ll revisit and rethink the type of advertising that the manufacturers used decades ago to keep you comfortable with your habit. It’s brilliantly designed, and always very much ‘of the period’. And the advertising looks great framed.
Of course, matchbooks are getting harder to find, because very few new ones are being produced. You’re going to have to let your friends know that you’re collecting matchbooks, so that they can look in their cupboards. I searched in a large old coffee tin that we use to store matchbooks and match boxes that we have picked up over the years. As non-smokers who only occasionally light candles, we still have a lot of matches on hand. And even when we use them, we save the more exotic ones until last. So we have a lot of restaurants and hotels, some of which no longer exist. And other things, too. There’s a great oversize Stanfield (the matchbook, not the politician!) from one of his early provincial election campaigns.
Ephemera. You like the occasional alcoholic beverage. So why not collect drinks advertising coasters or old magazine advertising, or advertising posters? There are some very colourful and attractive designs, and you can build a reasonable collection without breaking the bank.
Or how about one of the new ‘retro’ collectibles – advertising ash trays? They’re not paper, but they’re certainly transitory. There are some antiques and collectibles dealers who specialize in old ash trays (since they don’t seem to make them any more, I think that by definition they’re all ‘old’!) In this case, how about ash trays used as beverage advertising?
Remember those old porcelain Labatt trays, cream coloured with red lettering…as much a part of the 50s as the Drive-in theatre. However, with what’s called a ‘crossover’ item like that, you may also be competing with reformed smokers who collect all types of ash trays. For other ash trays, you may be competing with Art Deco fans, ocean liner collectors, railway collectors, and a host of other topical enthusiasts. Still, don’t be surprised when you find a good one for as little as a dollar or two at yard or church sales.
Ephemera. So you like food. Collecting menus will enlarge your food interests without enlarging your waistline. Some menus from famous restaurants or ocean liners are elaborate, with beautiful artwork on their covers. One series of Canada Steamship Lines menus features art by recognized French-Canadian artists such as Cloutier. Airline menus from the 70s and 80s display art by famous First Nations artists, as in the illustration, I Saw a Strange Land by Ilayu, on an Air Canada Business Class menu from the 1980s and comparing airline menus to the plastic food that you have to pay for on board these days makes you yearn for ‘the good old days’.
The dishes listed inside most menus that you discover will stimulate your culinary side. On ocean liners, rare and exotic dishes served in opulent surroundings for the First Class guests …and more basic fare and bland decor for the third class passengers! But even for those third-class passengers, the quantity and quality of the food was frequently superior to the fare they were accustomed to in the countries from which they were migrating.
The first time that I saw a War Bride menu (after the Second World War, boatloads of brides of returning soldiers were ferried across the Atlantic to their new lives in North America) I thought that it was pretty Spartan for the R,M.S. Queen Mary on July 4, 1946. Subsequent research disclosed that the trip was a boatload of War Brides, coming from food rationing or even unavailability. To them the menu would have seemed like fare for the gods.
Restaurant menus cover the spectrum of upper end glamour to roadside gas bars and soda fountains. The latter can be the more difficult to find. People might have saved a menu from a special dinner at a posh restaurant, but how many people ever saved a menu from a Woolworth Soda Fountain or a Sally’s Coffee Shop?
Ephemera. Some people collect playing cards – either complete decks of cards, or just one single card as a sample of each type. It can be a lot cheaper than actually gambling with them.
There is a beautiful set of Santa Fe Railroad/Harvey Hotels cards, circa 1910, with classic Western scenes on the face of each card. Some decks of cards have corporate or other logos. Some people collect playing cards with Casino logos. Some decks of cards are for a German version of euchre called Skat. If you have only one card, you wouldn’t know what’s different, but if you have a complete deck, you’ll know that there’s only 32 cards in it! And there are round cards to be found as well as rectangular ones.
Ephemera. You like to travel, but you can’t fit in more than the occasional sun-drenched vacation. If you fantasize about being a world traveler, consider collecting baggage labels and tags. There’s a vast array of airline, hotel, ocean liner, railroad, and destination labels. The airlines, liners, and railroads also had baggage tags to attach to your suitcase during the trip. Some of the early tags had a base of celluloid or metal.
As you build your collection, you can imagine the exotic destinations as well as the elegance of traveling there. A 1920s baggage label from the legendary Raffles Hotel in Singapore evokes images of lazily rotating ceiling fans looking down on white-garbed travelers in an elegantly paneled bar, thoughtfully sipping Singapore Slings as they contemplate their dining and diversions for the evening. With ephemera, you don’t need a billionaire’s resources to travel the globe in imaginary style.
Ephemera. Maybe you want to collect books. Murder mysteries, science fiction, Canadian authors, the list is limitless. The idea of collecting ‘first editions’ may sound glamorous, but don’t expect to do it on a budget. Consider a theme that’s a subject you like to read about – then you’ll be able to read your collection as well as keep it on a shelf.
If you want something special, consider author-signed copies. During recent years, as Christmas gifts for our book-collecting son, we have acquired a number of new books, signed
by the author, at Hatchards www.hatchards.co.uk in London, England. These are at normal retail price – no extra charge for the author’s signature. They offer a wide selection of titles which you can order online.
A few years ago at a church rummage sale we found a signed copy of Judy La Marsh’s autobiography, and earlier had found a Lowell Thomas book with the author’s signature. Why want a signature? It just seems to personalize the book a little bit more, because you know that the author at least had their hands on it.
Maps fit under the same umbrella. Lots of variety and a wide range of prices. My personal discomfort with maps is that to create the selection a dealer has in front of you, someone had to tear apart an atlas and in effect vandalize a complete collection of maps of a city or region. Ironically, maps are a prime example of the situation where the total price of the parts may be much greater than the value of the whole book intact. As a dealer, you may be able to make more money – and easier sales – by chopping up an Atlas of Montreal, for example, and selling the pages separately, than by selling the Atlas intact. However, I do like interesting maps that haven’t been surgically removed from an old Atlas.
Ephemera. Some people collect documents. I love documents, as an insight to history. Documents have a wide scope for collectors. Some people collect wartime documents – letters home from soldiers and sailors, military dispatches, even discharge and citation papers. Then there’s ‘civilian’ documents - bundles of poignant love letters sent years ago and saved for posterity, old invoices and envelopes representing fine examples of the engraver’s art , autographs of celebrities, old magazines and newspapers and there are many collectors of old recipe books and cookbooks.
There are many delights in postcard collecting. Don’t overlook it just because I haven’t featured it in this article. It embraces many of the attributes and attractions of the ephemera covered in this piece. You can learn more by visiting www.torontopostcardclub.com.
Ephemera. The ranks of the Ephemera Society of America (ESA) include all of the preceding, plus collectors of other specialties such as ‘poster stamps’ (stamps that are designed like posters, but are only postage-stamp sized), Valentines cards (some going well back into the 1800s), photographs, baseball cards and other sports memorabilia, corporate stock certificates, U.S. Civil War documents, theatre playbills, posters, and a host of other ‘ephemeral’ items. ESA has members in Canada, the U.S.A., and in other parts of the world. If you join, you’ll receive their Membership List and see the amazing range of collecting interests, and receive their regular magazine, Ephemera News. For more insights, visit www.ephemerasociety.org.
So if you’re looking for a hobby, there’s probably a hobby out there looking for you. And maybe that hobby is collecting some type of Ephemera! For more information, visit the websites above. Happy hunting!
John Sayers is a member of the Board of The Ephemera Society of America (www.ephemerasociety.org) and the Executive of the Toronto Postcard Club www.torontopostcardclub.com . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org